The Air Force will apparently award contracts for the construction of an electronic battlefield in Utah at the same time it is holding the first public hearings on the proposed battlefield - months before an environmental impact statement is completed.

Air Force Capt. Garrett Mason told the Deseret News Washington Bureau in a recent interview that the Air Force will award contracts for the construction of the Electronic Combat Test and Training Range in the West Desert in six months.Mason, one of the military officials working on the proposed West Desert project, is stationed at the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Command, at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

The range - expected to ultimately cost nearly $1 billion - will simulate electronic conditions found in actual battle. Equipment that mimics surface-to-air artillery and radar jammers will be used to train fighter pilots.

If the range is built, air traffic over the West Desert will increase by 30 percent. The environmental assessment will study the impact of increased flights out of Hill Air Force Base and over the desert, electromagnetic emissions on the West Desert, disturbances of biologically and culturally sensitive areas and the impact on neighboring towns.

Mason's comments fuel opponents' contentions that the military has already decided to construct the range, even though hearings have not been held and the impact statement is not scheduled for completion until September. Air Force officials have previously said the electronic battlefield is not a "done deal" until the federal government files a "record of decision."

"We can't turn a shovel of dirt until then," said Col. Earl Crosby, test manager for the center.

The Deseret News attempted to reach Crosby for comment on Mason's interview, but Crosby failed to return the phone call.

Downwinders, a citizens' watchdog group, disagrees.

"I perceive that the Air Force considers Utah's West Desert its private playground. They intend to run roughshod over anyone who gets in the way," said Steve Erickson, spokesman for the group.

In a letter to the Downwinders, Lt. Col. Thomas J. Bartol assured the group that the Air Force will not file a final decision on the battlefield before October. Bartol is director of the Programs and Environmental Division of the Air Force.

Mason's remarks suggest a decision has already been made.

Air Force officials have promised skeptical Utahns that the public opinion expressed in the June hearing will be taken into consideration when determining whether to proceed with the battlefield.

Downwinders believes the range poses a health hazard. If the range is constructed, the site will be bombarded by electromagnetic waves. The group cites several adverse health effects from exposure to high intensity electromagnetic waves.

The battlefield may also damage the quality of life for local residents in Callao, Trout Creek and other West Desert towns. They contend low-flying military jets already shatter windows, rattle dishes and frighten livestock. They're strongly opposed to more flights over their homes.

"I've heard all the F-16s flying at 50 feet about the tree tops that I want to hear," said Cecil Garland, a Callao resident. "Callao won't get any of the jobs. All we'll get are more low-flying jets over our place. I'm flat-out sick and tired of it."

Downwinders has maintained that the military intends to proceed with the range, regardless of how much public opposition there may be.

Erickson noted that military officials sought land-use permits from the Bureau of Land Management for the battlefield before even mentioning the proposal to the public.

"During the November scoping meetings, they said, `We're not moving ahead with this. We're just coming here to think what you all think about the concept,"' Erickson said. "In the meantime they are rushing off to begin the process to grab the land they need."

The range would be built in segments. The first one would cost $4.85 million. It would be funded from the 1990 federal budget.

The Air Force would use $2.5 million to build between 10 and 12 "threat" sites in the desert. Each site would house sophisticated electronic equipment that would beam waves at passing aircraft. Sites would be essentially fenced concrete pads with water, power and other utilities.

An additional $1 million is in the budget for operation and maintenance of the sites.

A $1.35 million fiber optic communications cable installed in Tule Valley would connect the sites.

The Air Force plans to ask for an additional $10.5 million to build and operate a range mission control center at Hill Air Force Base, Mason quoted Crosby as saying.

Crosby said it is too early to predict just how many people would be needed, either to build the sites and mission control, or to operate and maintain it and provide security when it is finished. Utah officials had been told earlier the battlefield should create 300 jobs.